Family outdoor fun in Alaska while awaiting snowfall

Last weekend, I hosted a pack of kids and parents for an overnight campout at Manitoba Cabin and Yurts near Summit Lake on the Kenai Peninsula. Designed to bridge the gap in outdoor activity between the warm days of summer and winter's first snowfall, we spent two sunny but chilly days exploring the spruce forests surrounding the cabin.

While all the families involved had camped only in summer, everyone gamely participated in the activities, including crafts and campfire cooking that harkened back to my childhood. This is one of the joys of working with children — the sensory reminiscing it triggers, something I hope I never lose.

[Reserve Manitoba Cabin, operated by Alaska Huts]

In mid-October, we're waiting on snow in Southcentral, even though I've switched to winter tires and located the snow shovel. I even made my son try on his snow pants to check how many inches are between the hem and his ankles these days. Everyone is anxiously awaiting those first flakes, but while we scan the sky and weather reports, a retreat to the woods seemed the perfect distraction.

Whether you're interested in fall camping or making a day trip to one of Alaska's many public land options, having a few tricks up your sleeve can introduce kids to year-round outdoor activity.

Set the stage

We're fortunate in Anchorage to have public land at our doorsteps. From Chugach State Park to the Chugach National Forest and local parklands, families can literally pick and choose a new destination every weekend and still not visit them all. For most children, the location need not be exotic; a simple grove of trees or forested trail near home will suffice. If you decide to camp overnight, several Chugach National Forest campgrounds remain open, as are Alaska State Parks and Forest Service public use cabins, as well as those of the Alaska Mountain Huts Association.

Dress for the season, not the weather at any given moment. Layers of non-cotton, hats, gloves and boots will go a long way toward comfortable kids who are more likely to enjoy several hours outdoors.

Consider bringing friends along, both for you and the kids. Outdoor activities beg for the shouts of children and the laughter of adults as you learn and play together. Pack a picnic and utilize the campfire rings at campgrounds and day-use areas for a toasty warm lunch or dinner al fresco.

Create the fun

Often, the simplest outdoor activities are the most successful. Provide kids the tools for success, give them space in which to work and watch the creativity fly. Think about the skills of teamwork and encourage multi-age cooperation as families blend together siblings, friends and classmates for a group activity.

Need ideas? Try these casual, fun ways to encourage learning through play.

*Forts and survival skills. Find a location with downed sticks, branches or logs and discuss ways to build a shelter using only materials found on the ground. Let the kids work together to construct a shelter to fit them all with no prodding from the parent peanut gallery. No fallen trees or branches? Bring along a tarp and some rope and give youngsters the same challenge. Then sit underneath and talk about the 10 essentials of camping and hiking.

*Capture the Flag. This oldie but goodie never goes out of style with kids, and it's a great game for parents to join too. Stake out a territory, divide into two teams, and put a bandana or flag at either end of the zone. Each team has to try and capture the other team's flag without being tagged out and put in jail.

*Build a fire. Campfire safety is an excellent skill for all children, starting at a young age. Provide kids with a basic fire-starting kit of cotton balls soaked in petroleum jelly, wood shavings or dryer lint and talk about what's necessary to start a campfire.

Erin Kirkland is publisher of AKontheGO.com and author of the guidebook "Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th State with Children."